Margate is a gritty, down-at-heel British seaside resort, the kind that hit its prime during the Victorian era, but now is more visibly cluttered with relics from the 1970s and 80s in the form of kebab shops and amusement arcades, both open and derelict. More recently it has been ‘gifted’ with an elegantly minimal art center, the Turner Contemporary, which houses a collection of the eponymous artist’s work, and hosts regular exhibitions of contemporary art. Margate was a favorite spot of Turner’s, as much due to his longstanding relationship with a widowed local landlady as his infatuation with the expansive sea views. It is as far removed in atmosphere from Dorothy Cross’ home on the ragged Western shores of Ireland as can be imagined, but it’s precisely Margate’s mix of windswept glamour cut with an undertone of seediness that casts Cross’s work in a compelling light.
Dorothy Cross: Connemara is the artist’s first solo show in a public gallery in the UK and it brings together old works and new, concentrating on those pieces which mine the shifting territory between land and sea. For the last number of years, Cross has been making videos and sculptural assemblages based on the scuffed relics, the skins and old bones salvaged from the shoreline around Connemara. In the context of Margate’s seamy charm, however, the works take on a heightened resonance, a pronounced, salty end-of-pier humor that leavens her absorption in the poetics of death and decay. Family (2005), for example, comprises a trio of alarmingly spiked crabs cast in bronze and placed directly on the floor, gorgeously lit from above so that their complicated shadows seem poised to skitter across the gallery. The nuclear wholesomeness of the family group of daddy, mammy and baby is sharply undermined by the insolently lolling knob sprouting from the top of ‘daddy’s’ shell, a pungent, tongue-in-cheek pun on catching crabs perhaps.
Her meditations on nature and death are often bracingly unsentimental, a clear-eyed examination of the materiality of decay shot through with mordant humour. Skins (2008) places the ragged remains of rubber flippers next to casts of feet, ranging in size from tiny child to adult – simply mounted on the wall, the work is at once poignant and chilling, recalling the brilliantly sinister Tom Waits lyric ‘let marrow bone and cleaver choose/while making feet for children’s shoes’. Whale (2011) deftly improvises a Corinthian column from a suspended skeleton and rusty bucket. Even Sapiens, (2007), a tripod topped with a pair of elegantly nesting bronze skulls (one a fetus, the other an adult), takes on the almost kitschily macabre tone of the seaside freak-show.
The playfully baleful atmospherics continue with a video piece made in response to Margate’s premier Victorian tourist attraction; for Shell Grotto (2013) a camera simply pans slowly along the twisting corridors of this strange underground folly unearthed in 1835. The snaking passages, niches and chambers are inlaid with shells arranged in complex patterns – lit by gas lamps during the height of its popularity the decorated walls are now dingy and cobweb blown. The video is compellingly suspenseful, recalling at once creepy fairground rides or weirdly arid colonoscopy footage. This work is paired with Tabernacle (2013), a video installationcome- sculpture filmed on the shoreline below the artist’s Connemara home. An upturned currach becomes a chapel-like shelter or private cinema looking onto a projection of waves rushing in to a sea cave. The boat’s contents dangle down – petrol can, holy water bottles, frayed ropes, a mattock and bucket. In the dim light, standing under the ribbed vault of the boat, painted in peeling and spattered layers of wine and blue, the correspondences with anatomical structures are amplified, recalling ribs and muscle walls, while black water rushes in to fill the ventrical chamber of the cave. The above works draw parallels, or perhaps more accurately, juxtapose the specificities of Margate and Connemara, but the lasting impression is that of Cross’s sly delight in punning landscapes or external structures with the internal architecture of the body, and its inevitable decay.
The show also bleeds into a neighboring exhibition, Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature, Works from the Tate Collection, and the conversation between the different bodies of work was reportedly important to Cross. Two of her works bookend the show: at the entrance, standing in a corner near two small chocolate brown oils, is Fox Glove I (2012) a waist high bronze cast of the plant, where hollow tips of female fingers replace the bell shaped flowers, recalling its vernacular name Lady’s Fingers. It’s a subtle work, discreetly installed, and the surreal exchange is easily missed. Bridging the two exhibition spaces is Shark Heart Submarine (2011), one of her more oblique assemblages. A paint-spattered nineteenth-century easel supports a metre-long model of a submarine, surfaced in white gold leaf. Opaque and hermetically sealed, only the exhibition notes inform us of the poetically suggestive cargo – a shark’s heart floating in alcohol in a glass jar. Rather than linking or bridging the gap between the two exhibitions, the work effectively encapsulates Cross’s distinctive response to her environment.
Two hundred years ago, Turner and his contemporaries obsessively painted and repainted views and seascapes – recording their responses to changing light and weather conditions in resinous oils or chalky watercolour. Dorothy Cross: Connemara showcases a similar fascination with place and with the natural world. Her visual language is both more direct and more lyrical, however. Harvesting, fusing and reconstructing objects washed up on the shoreline, her work references the sea only implicitly. Like a negative space drawing, the sea’s presence is inferred through her scavenging and preserving the objects around it or washed up by it. Cross’s work performs a visceral, tactile invocation of place, but also manages to transcend the specific idyll of romanticized Connemara. Instead, the artist’s taste for barbed black humor and a salty pun resonate grippingly in scruffy, urban Margate.